Joseph Clark's Reviews > Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate

Anti-Semite and Jew by Jean-Paul Sartre
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Dec 16, 14

Read from August 17 to 20, 2012

Sartre's "Anti-Semite and Jew" is not a statistics-driven sociological exploration, nor could it have been, written in France after the occupation, apparently as an attempt to make sense of one of the animating passions of his oppressors. Qualitative and impressionistic as it is, the overall narrative of the "etiology of hate" the essay sets out to anatomize is highly plausible. And, if taken as true along its broad contours, it is also possessed of explanatory power for phenomena beyond anti-Semitism.
Three of Sartre's points rang especially true:
i.) Resentment plays an active role in prejudice; the moral shortfalls of the bigot, or even circumstances beyond the control of anyone, are blamed on the objects of prejudice.
ii.) Prejudice is enacted through the projection of metaphysical essences (e.g. "Jewishness")which filter down onto every level of the hated person's being. (A Christian may act altruistically, but if a Jew commits the same apparently selfless act, he must, by virtue of his Jewishness, have an ulterior motive.)
iii.) Prejudice is a form of "snobishness" which insists there is only one good, correct or valid way to be a good citizen, Frenchman, etc., and that the victim of prejudice is analytically excluded from meeting the snobbish standard.
The three points more or less interlock. For example, the snobishness of the anti-Semite insists the Jew, no matter how long their family has lived in France, and no matter what sacrifices they might make on behalf of their country; only one of "good blood" can be a "true" Frenchman, and this quality can never be lost; therefore, Frenchness is essential and metaphysical. And as I said above, the three points can be generalized to make sense of other hate-driven populist movements. Hutu nationalists blamed the metaphysically repulsive "cockroach" Tutsi for the socio-economic turmoil of Rwanda. The Klan insisted that "one drop" of African blood could infect a person's entire essence, and that only a certain very specific type of American could "Keep America American."
However, my most valuable take-away from the book is different. Sartre lead me to understand the appeal of an approach to civil discourse now called "identity politics." I was not necessarily convinced by his arguments for the approach, but I now understand the power of its appeal, and some of the shortfalls of my own stance, which resembles positions Sartre variously identifies as "liberal," "democratic," or "humanistic." If he had been American, he might have also called it the "melting pot" doctrine of diversity. Under the humanistic vision, there is a human nature, more or less operative underneath or behind the contingencies of personalities, and more or less universal across nations and history. This bare same-ness does not have to be thick; it can be the human capacity to reason and reach the same conclusions given the same axioms, or the fact that all humans have certain interests or objective conditions for flourishing. The humanist says that because we are possessed of human nature, we are capable of tolerating each other and engaging in shared enterprises, so long as we sublimate or privatize those things which conceal our nature: religious, cultural, racial identities.
When applied to Jews, Sartre characterizes the humanistic approach as a liberalized anti-Semitism. The humanist can, so to speak, love the man but hate the Jew. The Jew's affirmation of his own Jewishness is an impediment to his realization of his humanity qua humanity; he cuts himself off from the democratic community by insisting on a tribal identity. Where Sartre and I agree is that the liberal humanist temperament is rare, and goes against the grain of most persons' temperaments.[1] In my own vocabulary, I would say that humans are social animals, and most people identify with the society in which they were raised--both their genetically and geographically immediate kin, the historic past of their tribe, and the future well-being of that tribe. (Even many secular Jews who take the Torah to be a human document insist on a bris for their son, to honor their ancestors and to extend their traditions into the future.) Sarte says something closer to the effect that the humanist makes an abstraction of the individual Jew, stripping away many of the things most important to the Jew's construction of his own identity and values. (I am paraphrasing massively here.) By way of a solution, Sartre says as humanists, we must learn to affirm individuals given their vast differences from us, instead of denying those differences exist, or tolerating them *in spite of* their differences. This must also be done while cultivating common national enterprises. How both projects are to be balanced is left sketchy.
This line of argument could be construed as a predecessor to multiculturalisms, which call for moving beyond "mere tolerance" and appreciating persons not as fellow humans or citizens, but as their own communities. Again, after Sartre's arguments, I am more sympathetic to such lines of thought, but am not sure how or if this could work in practice. Sartre's prescriptions as to how we might cultivate democratic empathy are thin, but I found them to be a rich starting point in that essential line of inquiry.


[1] This, in of itself, is not necessarily a mark against humanism. A century ago, misogyny on a legal and cultural scale was all-pervasive, but far from facilitating the irrelevance of feminism, this fact heightened the moral necessity of feminism. That said, as an atheist, after initial enthusiasm for the doctrine, I have been finding more and more problems with secular humanism in both its theoretical and actually-existing forms. But that is irrelevant for the purposes of this review.
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message 1: by Yves (new)

Yves " written as it was under the Nazi occupation of France by an embattled member of the resistance"
the first part of this sentence is false (written in 1946), the second part nowadays would make any frenchman laugh (Sartre was definitely not a resistant)


Joseph Clark Thanks for the correction!


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